Stevenson on Realism in Literature

Following is an excerpt from R. L. Stevenson’s “A note on Realism,” Essays in the Art of Writing. The old proverb struck me as I was reading it, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stevenson rejects as a false dichotomy the distinction between the Aristotelian view of literature as vehicle of perennial truth and realism. The same monster exists today. Gritty realism about anti-heroes and the pathos of the poverty stricken are the stuff of real literature, while the problems of the human condition, when dealt with at all, are treated like social problems in need of state intervention. Anyway, enjoy:


In literature…the great change of the past century has been effected by the admission of detail.  It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the novelist. For some time it signified and expressed a more ample contemplation of the conditions of man’s life; but it has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still too harsh to call survival….After Scott we beheld the starveling story—once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as a parable—begin to be pampered upon facts. The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey.  A man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on technical successes. To afford a popular flavour and attract the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to call the rancid. That is exciting to the moralist; but what more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to degenerate into mere feux-de-joie of literary tricking. The other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible colours and visible sounds.

This odd suicide of one branch of the realists may serve to remind us of the fact which underlies a very dusty conflict of the critics. All representative art, which can be said to live, is both realistic and ideal; and the realism about which we quarrel is a matter purely of externals. It is no especial cultus of nature and veracity, but a mere whim of veering fashion, that has made us turn our back upon the larger, more various, and more romantic art of yore.  A photographic exactitude in dialogue is now the exclusive fashion; but even in the ablest hands it tells us no more—I think it even tells us less—than Molière, wielding his artificial medium, has told to us and to all time of Alceste or Orgon, Dorine or Chrysale. The historical novel is forgotten. Yet truth to the conditions of man’s nature and the conditions of man’s life, the truth of literary art, is free of the ages. It may be told us in a carpet comedy, in a novel of adventure, or a carpet comedy, in a novel of adventure, or a fairy tale. The scene may be pitched in London, on the sea-coast of Bohemia, or away on the mountains of Beulah. And by an odd and luminous accident, if there is any page of literature calculated to awake the envy of M. Zola, it must be that Troilus and Cressida which Shakespeare, in a spasm of unmanly anger with the world, grafted on the heroic story of the siege of Troy.

This question of realism, let it then be clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art. Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious; but if you be weak, you run the risk of being tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece.


The Weightlessness of Contemporary Literary Short Fiction

I’m going to get hate mail over this, but I don’t care. It has to be said aloud because a lot of people are thinking it, others feeling it, but neither is saying it: the vast majority of contemporary literary fiction is beautifully crafted prose wholly devoid of substance. It is masterful meaninglessness. I’m speaking especially of short fiction here, the kind found in literary magazines. When I do bother to read one of the well-established brands—I don’t think I need to name them—I come away forgetting everything I’ve read because none of the stories said anything to me. The stories are like exercises in style, like perfectly choreographed ballets about nothing.

I don’t get this feeling when I read genre writers like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. Sure, some of Bradbury’s stuff is childish and Dick’s paranoid universe can get a little old, but many of their stories have depth to them. Take Bradbury’s The Burning Man.  The characters’ encounter with “genetic evil” on a hot summer day speaks to a deep-seated fear in the human soul: that we can unintentionally stumble across evil that can only be held at bay so long by cunning before it consumes us.

Or take The Veldt, one of Bradbury’s best-known stories. It’s often portrayed as a cautionary tale about the effects of immersive technology—a warning about video games before the first one had even been created. But it has a deeper resonance. The children kill their parents because they’ve been cut off from the real world by their parents’ own well-intentioned desire to insulate them from it.  The world of human relations—of love, obligations, goals and striving for excellence—has been replaced by one where every need is met by technology. In attempting to create happy children, in other words, the parents have created sociopaths who know, feel and desire nothing beyond the sensual inputs provided by the artificial world created to entertain them into happiness. It’s something every parent agonizes over.

Contemporary literary fiction, by contrast, is devoid of real pathos. The most delicate and refined of sentiments are as deep as it gets. In fact, this aesthetic is intentional. Someone loses a not-so-loved one or witnesses an accident and then ruminates about it as a complete outsider—endless rumination on trivialities by witnesses to mundane events. There’s also something unsavory lurking in this too common how-it-affects-me standpoint. The person actually suffering is cast into the background so the bystander narrator can ruminate on how it affected him emotionally.  This is the especially unsettling dimension in all of it.

If you’re still not convinced of the problem with the aesthetic, let me put it in more concrete terms. Suppose a friend comes to you and wants to extemporize for an hour or two on his feelings over the death of a neighbour he had never even spoken to. Would you not invent some excuse to get out of it? “Sorry, I have to wash my car. Can this wait until next year some time?” And if you wouldn’t listen to what is, frankly, shameful self-indulgence, why in the name of Zeus would you read it?

Isn’t it ultimately decadent navel-gazing? Isn’t that where it originates—in decadence? After all, the stories I’ve read have their closest kinship in form and feeling with late imperial Rome, when every literary work was a glossy, meaningless ditty churned out to titillate with the cleverness of the style and lightness of its sentiments. How else does one define what is at once so beautifully wrought and yet so utterly superficial?

Now, I’ll allow the possibility that I missed something—that there are great examples of literary short fiction that I’ve completely overlooked. And I do desperately invite the opposite view. But be forewarned: don’t bother informing me about wonders without justification. Don’t just give me titles and authors and instruct me to read them. I need you to make the case; simply asserting it may demonstrate your elevated tastes to this philistine, but it won’t move me.

The floor is open. Please prove me wrong.

The Profound Pessimism of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau

Anyone who’s watched John Frankenheimer’s 1996 film adaptation (starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) might think that H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau belongs to that sub-genre of horror where the scientific experiment goes dreadfully wrong. In the film, Moreau tries to genetically engineer a non-violent race of human beings, only to create animal monsters.  So, the lesson is that Moreau’s obsession with conquering evil causes him to transgress the most basic moral boundaries.  He is thus a variation on Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, where playing God makes one the hand-maiden of the Devil.

But if Wells’ Dr. Moreau (like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) is a Promethean figure, he is an infinitely more pernicious one.  Unlike the ‘bringer of fire,’ Wells’ Moreau is not motivated by lofty ideals.  He is not moved by the very human desire to transcend death (Shelley) or to engineer evil out of the human genome (Frankenheimer); on the contrary, Wells’ Moreau is driven by a pathological curiosity abetted by a sociopathic ego.

In other words, Wells’ Moreau is not a visionary whose noble intentions become a real-life nightmare; he is a pitiless, amoral experimenter, willing to inflict any amount of cruelty to vindicate his hypothesis that animals can be transformed into a human beings.  Wells’ Moreau is more mad scientist than misguided genius.

Some have also compared Wells’ Island to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, seeing Prendick’s experience among the Beast Folk as analogous to Gulliver’s life among the Houyhnhnms.  The similarities, however, are largely superficial.  No doubt, the experience of both Gulliver and Prendick changed the way they looked at humanity thereafter.  But the naturally law-abiding and stoic horse-people have little in common with the morally incontinent Beast Folk, whose mindless incantation of the “Law” is more to remind them of the existence of the “House of Pain” and how to avoid it than to provide a model for life.

Moreover, the resultant changes in Gulliver and Prendick bear little resemblance to one another.  Gulliver is inspired to follow an ascetic life, trading the luxury and frivolity of everyday existence for quiet contemplation.  Prendick, on the other hand, is traumatized, condemned to seeing the animal in real human beings as he originally saw the real animal beneath Moreau’s human-like creations. In short, Gulliver is improved by his experience (at least from his own point of view and in some sense ours) while Prendick is merely haunted by his.

So, Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau is neither a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific hubris nor a satirical mirror in the excesses of contemporary life.  The book is really a profoundly pessimistic allegory about the human condition.  Moreau represents the naturally superior Nietzschean Overmen who shape the world and all within it into a form that serves their interests.  Like Moreau, they have created the Law that forces us, the human animals, into something more than the mere animals.  Thus, the Overmen’s civilization is maintained only through the threat of punishment (i.e., the “House of Pain”).  Like the Beast Folk’s, our humanity is ephemeral.  Our primal instincts are forever drawing us back to wallow in the mud.  In sum, our world, like the world of the Beast Folk, is just an invention of Moreau’s imagination—one contrived to further the intellectual pursuits that preserve him against the boredom caused by a purposeless existence.

One could expand upon this picture, of course, flesh out the details and draw some links with the text and the movement of the plot, but that is the general picture of the meaning of The Island of Dr. Moreau.